LFF Martyn Conterio

#LFF 2019: Rose Plays Julie review

★★★★★

In Rose Plays Julie, the latest from dynamic duo Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, a child of adoption studying veterinary medicine decides to seek out her biological mother and father. Her journey of discovery and resolution in holding her parents to account makes for haunting viewing.

With their regular collaborator Aidan Gillen, Molloy and Lawlor have fashioned a knockout film akin to Greek tragedy or even Michael Haneke’s ice-cold examinations of bourgeois misery and hypocrisy. Yet the pair are directors of inspired focus and perspectives, as well as tremendous aesthetic playfulness. Really, they’re plotting a creative course all by themselves and Irish cinema will benefit greatly.

Rose (Ann Skelly) is a college student on a mission. In early scenes, the girl’s determination and sense of purpose edge us towards psycho-horror territory. Is she going to be a home-wrecker and nutcase? Tracking down her biological mother Ellen (Orla Brady), an actor living in England, she is shocked to discover her birth was the product of rape. Who, then, is the rapist/father? That would be Peter, a successful archaeologist and author (played by Gillen).

Rose goes undercover to get closer to this mystery man, joining a dig in the countryside, while posing as an actress researching archaeology for a play she’s starring in. Peter takes a shine to the girl and doesn’t question her backstory, sensing an opportunity for what is likely a very long run of extra-marital flings. He is clearly a man who has everything and the word ‘no’ isn’t in his vocabulary.

Rose Plays Julie is a film of voids, abysses, revelations and reckonings. The mother, father and daughter have holes in their hearts to fill, each caused by entirely different things. Rose’s method of attempting to get close to her biological mother is essentially to re-play Ellen as a younger woman, putting herself in harm’s way with the father in order to get closer to him; to study him, to judge and make a crucial decision, based on the evidence before her, like she would the wounded animals she has euthanized as part of her degree in veterinary medicine.

This riveting work about the horror of human existence is shattering to sit through, but it tells us also about fortitude and spirit. Its emotional dilemmas, depictions of trauma, revenge and fractured family ties are handled with such skill and sense of purpose, it is truly exemplary film-making.

The 63rd BFI London Film Festival runs from 2-13 October 2019. whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff

Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn